Hands-on Science: Teaching Children How to Observe Nature


by Toni Albert, M.Ed., Trickle Creek Books

Nature is a perfect laboratory for learning about our world. Exploring nature awakens children’s curiosity and sense of wonder and in a very “natural” way, introduces them to science and the scientific method. Learning to be observant – and more observant – leads to asking questions, doing research, making predictions, designing experiments, and drawing conclusions. And there you have it – a young scientist!

When I was writing a series of four EcoJournals with nature activities for exploring each season, I walked every day for a year through our woods, around the pond, and beside a little creek with a notebook and pencil in my hand. I was teaching myself to observe the tiny, subtle changes that occur as the seasons progress. Almost unconsciously, I practiced the steps of the scientific method, not in a fixed sequence, often repeating and refining a step, but consistently making discoveries and gaining new information.

Activities for children to help them become more observant:

It’s fun to run through a field, scramble up rocks, crash through the underbrush, or splash in a creek, but that’s not the best way to explore nature. Practice moving quietly. Sit still in one place for at least five minutes.

Keep all of your senses alert. Listen to the sounds around you. Breathe deeply and notice different smells. Look around you and observe details. Touch the bark of trees, fuzzy moss, smooth stones.

Look at a familiar place in a new way. Look at the scene upside down. Or concentrate on looking at shadows. Or look through colored glasses or colored cellophane. Look through a camera lens or binoculars. Did you see anything you hadn’t noticed before?

Look for signs of animals: Tracks, feathers or fur, nests, holes in trees or in the ground, narrow trails, bones, droppings, chewed nutshells, stripped plants, etc. Make a list of the signs of animals that you observe. What animals do you think were there?

Keep a nature journal. Record anything interesting that you see outdoors, such as a tiny red mushroom or a spider web stretched between two trees.

Take photos or make sketches to add to your nature journal. When you study something through the viewfinder of a camera or look closely at details in order to draw it, you will really see it.

Create a list of interesting things you’ve seen outside (an orange leaf, lichen, a black stone, etc.) and invite your friends to have a scavenger hunt. Give each person a copy of the list and see who can find the most objects on the list in 15 minutes.

Take a tiny plastic bag (the kind that holds an extra button when you buy a new shirt) and fill it with tiny treasures, such as a berry or a miniature flower. This will force you to look closely.

Look at the same tree every day for a week or two. In spring, observe the appearing of buds, flowers, and leaves. Measure the growth of a single leaf. In fall, watch the progress of coloring, fading, falling leaves. Look for nests, insects, and cavities. Look at the bark, the shape of the leaves, and the branching of the tree. Identify your tree with a field guide to trees.

When observation becomes scientific

When children are given direction, they are usually excellent observers of nature. They may hone their observation skills by keeping records (time, date, place, weather) and including measurements, counts, photos and sketches, and written comments. When their observations prompt interesting questions and experiments, they are fully ready to use the scientific method of inquiry.

Toni Albert, M.Ed., is the author and publisher of books that “teach kids to care for the Earth.” – TrickleCreekBooks.com

Author: Michael Leppert

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